Locus of Control
One of the objectives we have for kids whose behaviour is out of control is to have them take responsibility for their actions. Being accountable for your actions is considered the stamp of a positive member of the community and research has shown that successful people are more likely to believe they have control over their destination.
In the mid 1950’s Julian Porter a psychologist looked at the contrasting mindsets that are held when we consider who controls our lives. The contrasting positions are that we are free to do what we liked or someone else was in control. In the days this question was being discussed there was a real difference in who was in charge with a clear division between the working class who had little decision making opportunities and the owners who took a much more authoritarian stance. Religion was also a factor with the ‘will of God’ being a significant driver of beliefs. This debate still rages but the modern version is whether we have free will or are our decisions ‘determined’ by our past, do we have internal control, free will or are we controlled by our memories, ‘external’ factors.
This work continued and the next milestone was the idea to assess influence through an analysis of children’s behaviour related to concepts like personal control and helplessness. This resulted in the Nowicki-Strickland Locus of Control Test and a resulting scale from completely personal free will to being totally controlled by external factors.
The scores from these tests placed the child somewhere on the continuum from totally external control to the opposite internal end.
External Locus of Control
Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by fate, luck, or other external circumstances
Internal Locus of Control
Individual believes that his/her behaviour is guided by his/her personal decisions and efforts.
As pointed out above there is a general belief that it is desirable to be towards the ‘internal’ end of the scale. People who have this characteristic have more confidence and belief that they control their destination and are more likely to be successful. A consequence on excessive internalisation results in neuroticism with anxiety and depression.
Although this is the general case it would be wrong to assume the relationship is causal; that is the more you adopt an internal locus of control the more successful you will be. It is acknowledged that your belief system is learned from your environment. The question should be asked does success and privilege come from being responsible or if you’re born into success and privilege you find it easier to take the credit for success?
There is always an ‘however’ when we are discussing children who have suffered early childhood Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or severe neglect. What I do know is that when it comes to measuring the Locus of Control with these kids things are not so simple.
When I worked at a school for students with Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disorder we used a test to measure a range of traits in these kids. This was the Achenbach Test and amongst the range of characteristics this test examined were depression and aggressive behavior which are two features of these kids’ behavior. For the initial test the results that identified their locus of control invariably placed them on the extreme, external end and that was reflected in the lack of responsibility they took for their actions. When they were in trouble it was always someone else’s fault. The other measure was for their level of Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disordered behaviour which was always surprisingly low considering they were expelled from mainstream schooling for their behaviour.
We retested those students who successfully made it through the school and either returned to mainstream or to work. We found that the level of external control they reported had significantly reduced which was pleasing; they were taking more ownership of their behaviour. However, in the exit test they reported an increase in their Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disordered behaviour. At first glance it seemed the program had made them more deviant but I believe the increase in their acceptance of their behaviour had them making a more honest appraisal of their behaviour.
Contrast to this reported bias towards external control with the impact abuse and neglect has on their sense of self. These kids believe they are failures, they are no good and because of this lack of real self-belief they have no expectation of success. It would be a logical hypothesis that these kids would link their failure to their inadequacies; this would mean they have an internal cause of failure.
I can only speculate that this result did not appear on the test we conducted because all the students who were sent to the school were extremely ‘acting out’ and aggressive. One group of kids who suffer from PTSD and Neglect ‘act in’, internalize and I would predict they score on the internal extreme of the scale. The sadness is these are the kids who are predominantly girls do not generally misbehave and are extremely compliant causing no trouble for schools and so receive no support.
So what to do for these kids? The answer is in teaching them healthy boundaries. That is to teach them to self-evaluate their contribution to the situation they find themselves in.
Part of having healthy boundaries is the ability to answer the following questions:
- ‘What is really happening’? Sometimes what is in front of you is clear but more often than not the current dispute may just be a symptom of another issue that is not being addressed.
- ‘Who’s Responsible’? Here you can use the Nowicki-Strickland test as a talking point.In all descriptions there is an unspoken presumption that we will take a position on the scale and that might be so as a general observation about individuals.But when we are asking the ‘boundary question’ the answer is not about our personal traits but about the current situation.Sometimes we are completely responsible other times we are completely the victim and all parts across the scale.Teach them that the real responsibility is for their actions not for who they are.
- ‘What do we want to happen’? We want to make sure they understand what their real needs are and it’s their duty to take action to get those needs met.Their first responsibility is to their self.
One of the best bits of advice about behaviour is in the Serenity Pray:
‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference’.
I believe there is one last step missing and that is to ‘let go’. Understand that we can’t make anyone do what they don’t want to do and if the conflict can’t be resolved then we must let go of that issue. This is perhaps the hardest step in having healthy boundaries.